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"Helping Hand" of the Month

 

Students' Empowerment, Rights & Vision through Education

SERVE: Where the Child is Without Fear

Ever seen a little tot bent under the weight of a large bag of books, dragging her feet to the school bus early in the morning? Or a neighbour's child crying while delivering her not-so-good report card to her parents? Or glanced at the newspaper while sipping a cup of tea, and shaken your head at yet another headline on a student suicide? Something should be done, you may have thought vaguely. Someone should do something about this education system. In 1996, three men, Rajesh Arora, Abbas Bengali and Brendan MacCarthaigh - a Hindu, a Muslim and a Christian - did just that. They founded SERVE (Students' Empowerment, Rights & Vision through Education), an NGO determined to substitute a new, child-centered system of education for the thing in place at the moment.

Almost 24% of all suicides in India are committed by children who fail in examinations. This statistic, shocking though it is, doesn't even begin to reflect the suffering of  millions of young students whose childhood is lost  in the endless cycle of rote learning, exams, report cards, and extra tuitions. What should be a fun learning period of life with myriad activities is instead dominated by fear and shame, stress and anxiety. After spending the entire first half at school, with one stressful period after another, children then have extra classes or tuitions in the afternoons. Then there is homework in the evenings. And the stress of exam time, with apparently the entire family's izzat hinging on the rank you get, the marks you obtain. Did you 'pass' or 'fail'? Did you come third or thirtieth? This seems to be more important to parents and society than the  mental and physical health of their children. But is this what a child's life should be like? What about reading for fun, or learning to play the guitar, or simply playing with friends outside?

Brendan MacCarthaigh, who has lived in India for over 45 years and taught in several institutions at every level, believes that the current education system is  "threatening rather than supporting" and that, as the National Human Rights Commission put it, "the education system in India does not support the rights of the child." As a teacher, he used to observe the panic in the eyes and body-language of his students around exam and results time. He used go around schools, hoping they would take their own initiative to change things. Realizing he was naive to hope for this, he took matters in his own hands when he founded SERVE with Rajesh Arora and Abbas Bengali. 

In the SERVE system, a class is divided into groups and the children teach each other, while the teacher acts as a guide. There are evaluation systems and the students are geared up for the bigger board examinations too. But all this is done without the child being constantly told to memorise what the teachers say. The children ask questions and find answers themselves. This gives a boost to their self-confidence, helping them to face board examinations later without the fear factor. Additionally there are courses in stress management, telecounselling and face-to-face counseling to make things less stressful for the children.

SERVE received a major boost when the then director of State Council Educational Research and Training (SCERT), Delhi, Dr Janaki Rajan, allowed the system to be adopted in the state in 2001. Nearly nine lakh children benefited from it and several teachers were trained as well. However, SCERT stopped using it after the end of Rajanís term. Apart from Delhi, Rajasthan also supports this programme.

And what about in Kolkata, where the pressure on students is at its highest, and where SERVE is based? SERVE has faced greatest resistance from West Bengal - apparently the government is leery of any change that might create thinking and independent young people who cannot be so easily controlled. But Brother MacCarthaigh thinks this attitude might be thawing. We certainly hope so - more than 16,000 students have committed suicide in the past three years in Kolkata alone, with the numbers increasing every year - what a tragic waste. And what a dark legacy for the government. Anyone listening? It's time to act now!

Start today, become a Helping Hand Yourself!

 

Click here  to see how you can help support SERVE. If you are above 18 years of age and moved by the plight of students in today's India, get in touch with them. Your talents could find a place in SERVE, temporarily or on a more lasting basis.

The SERVE Centre
Address: 69/70 B.B. Ganguly Street. Kolkata 700006
Phone: 91-33-2212 2219
Email: serve@vsnl.net

Home page: http://serve4students.net.in/

 

HelloLife.org thanks Brother Brendan MacCarthaigh for telling us about his work and about SERVE.